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date: 04 July 2020

Sibylline Oracles

Summary and Keywords

The Sibylline Oracles had a long life. The Sibyl was in origin a single Greek prophetess, renowned for the accuracy of her forecasts, divinely inspired, but portrayed as mad or raving, and regularly spewing forth dire forebodings. Additional Sibyls gradually sprang up in a variety of locations in the Mediterranean world, including the renowned Cumaean Sibyl whom Aeneas reputedly consulted. Sibylline prophecies were eventually collected in written form in Rome and used by Roman authorities to provide interpretation of unusual prodigies or natural disasters or to offer advice on significant matters of foreign entanglements and wars. Although that collection (insofar as it is historical) has long since disappeared, the voice of the Sibyl was reproduced in literary form. The extant Sibylline verses, composed in Homeric Greek hexameters, constitute twelve books of oracles, fashioned over a period of several centuries by numerous different and no longer identifiable hands. They constitute a motley assemblage of grim forecasts, historical references, apocalyptic visions, and denunciations of various peoples, especially Romans, for their abandonment of piety and indulgence in evil. The genre was appropriated by anonymous Jewish authors, speaking through the voice of the Sibyl, and employed to convey condemnation of cities and nations for the sins of idolatry, licentiousness, and a range of vices. Vivid portrayals of the end time and eschatological conflagration feature many of the texts. Subsequent Christian writers interpolated verses, added exaltations of Christ, and appropriated Sibylline pronouncements for their own ends. Others manipulated the oracles to record historical personages and events in the framework of prophetic pronouncements. The result was a complex and unsystematic compilation of reconstructed or fabricated prophecies ascribed to Sibyls but largely representing the ingenuity of Jewish and Christian compilers.

Keywords: Sibyl, prophecy, oracle, Jewish, Christian, apocalyptic, eschaton, salvation, Rome

From Sibyl to Sibyls

The image of the Sibyl first surfaces as that of a divinely inspired Greek prophetess, her pronouncements dire and foreboding. Our earliest reference to her stems from the philosopher Heraclitus, who composed his works in the late 6th and early 5th centuries bce. For Heraclitus she is a solitary figure, a raving seer who delivered her prophecies in mirthless fashion, unembellished, without sugar-coating, resonating through a thousand years, a voice coming from a god.1 The tradition fragments thereafter, and the Sibyls multiply. Heraclitus’s prophetess may have been a lone voice, echoing for a millennium and lacking specific time and place. But subsequent references speak of various Sibyls ascribed to particular locations and representing individual, perhaps competing, shrines. By the mid-4th century bce, Heraclides Ponticus, a philosopher, pupil of Plato’s Academy, and polymath, wrote a work on oracle shrines and could already refer to a number of Sibyls in the Mediterranean world. Later citations of his research show that he identified Sibyls at least at Marpessus in the Troad, at Erythrae, and at Delphi. The Delphic Sibyl is set in the mythical past as antedating Orpheus, and the Erythraean, called Herophile, lacks chronology, at least in our fragmentary evidence. The Marpessian, however, has a more recent pedigree: Heraclides puts her in the time of Solon and Cyrus, ostensibly in the 6th century bce.2 By his day, as is clear, several shrines claimed Sibyls of their own, and stories circulated about their origins and their lineage. The stories became increasingly diverse and overlapping. By the time of Pausanias, for example, in the 2nd century ce, the Sibyl Herophile had been claimed by the Delphians as a daughter of Zeus, born before the Trojan War, for she had prophesied the tale of Helen and the expedition to Troy; or, alternatively, as the daughter of a nymph and located at Marpessus, the ruins of which Pausanias himself had visited.3 It is noteworthy that both Marpessus and Erythrae laid claim to Herophile, thus indicating that the proliferation of Sibyls was the product of local rivalries.4 Tales of origins and genealogies multiplied accordingly.5

The learned Roman scholar and antiquarian M. Terentius Varro decided to take matters in hand and sort out the jumble of Sibyls in a systematic manner in the mid-1st century bce. Varro, as reported by the Church Father Lactantius in the 4th century ce, compiled a list of ten Sibyls, duly citing his source for each of them, and recording them in chronological sequence. His assiduous researches identified the first as coming from Persia and the second from Libya, interestingly enough, thus locating the earliest of them outside the Hellenic world, although his sources were themselves Greek—Nicanor, the historian of Alexander, and the tragedian Euripides.6 The Delphic Sibyl, however, duly comes next, and Varro puts her in the spotlight, suggesting that female prophets are called “Sibyls” either because their pronouncements come from a god or because they derive from the Sibyl at Delphi.7 The remainder had diverse places of origin and sites of prophecy. They included the Cimmerian Sibyl who relocated to Italy, the Erythraean who preceded Homer but forecast the Greek triumph at Troy, the prophetess at Marpessus who had been identified by Heraclides of Pontus, a Phrygian Sibyl who delivered her oracle at Ancyra, the Tiburtine prophetess who enjoyed worship as a goddess, and the one whose fame would eclipse them all—the Sibyl at Cumae whom Vergil’s Aeneid immortalized.8 Varro also recorded the most memorable of Sibylline tales, that in which the Cumaean seer negotiates with king Tarquinius Priscus for the sale of the Sibylline Books, eventually burning six of the nine, until the king agrees to purchase the remaining three—for the same price originally proposed for all of them.9

Not that Varro’s list became, in any sense, canonical. Other Sibyls turn up in different sources. The most intriguing perhaps is a certain female seer identified by Pausanias as one who delivered oracles to the Hebrews in Palestine and who received the name Sabbe. She was reputed to be a daughter of Berossus (the Babylonian historian?) and Erymanthe. It is intriguing that her extraction too was contested. Some claimed her as a Babylonian, others as an Egyptian.10 The world of the Sibyls, in popular or learned imagination, extended to the Near East.11

The Sibylline Books in Rome

Varro’s testimony offers our best glimpse of the legends that circulated among oracular shrines from Italy to Anatolia and beyond—even if we cannot be certain that Lactantius conveyed that testimony directly and accurately from its author.12 Varro’s reference to the colourful anecdote involving Tarquinius and the Sibyl, however, points to a matter of some significance: the role of the Sibylline Books in Roman history. Whether or not the acquisition of these oracles dates back to the era of Tarquinius, they were in fact housed in the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus and consulted on several occasions in the period of the Roman Republic. Two officials in the early Republic had the task of consulting and reporting the advice of the Sibylline Books when dire and unexpected prodigies occurred, or when advice was needed on major matters of state. Their number was later expanded to ten and eventually to fifteen.13 But the officialdom maintained a tight control over the books. Only the senate could authorize consultation, no one but the designated officials had access to them, and their reports went straight to the senate—which alone decided what and what not to make public.14 Our sources record consultations as early as the 5th century bce, prompted by prodigies or natural disasters.15 Whether these initial resorts to Sibylline wisdom are authentic or not, there is no doubt that by the beginning of the 3rd century bce the books were a respected resource in times of stress or uncertainty. External legitimation strengthened the hand of Rome’s leadership and served state interests. So, for example, in 293, after a widespread epidemic devastated the Italian countryside, the Sibylline Books recommended assistance from the healing god Aesculapius, who was duly brought from Epidaurus in the form of a snake to the Tiber island in Rome, where a shrine was installed to house him.16 A half-century later, the Books authorized celebration of the Ludi Saeculares to propitiate the gods of the underworld at a critical time in the First Punic War.17 The Hannibalic War intensified recourse to divine assistance, and the Sibylline Books offered a valuable avenue for the purpose. After the calamitous battle of Lake Trasimene in 217, they counselled the transfer of the cult of Venus Erycina from Sicily to the Capitol, thereby providing reassurance and confidence.18 Similar episodes occurred at various intervals in the later Republic, a noteworthy signal of Roman adaptation to and employment of the religious culture of Hellas.19

Calamity occurred in 83 bce when the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus was burned down during the civil war, and with it the precious collection of Sibylline Oracles. But all was not lost. After the rebuilding of the temple, the senate, on a motion of the consul of 76, commissioned an embassy to seek out the Sibylline pronouncements at Erythrae and elsewhere, even those in private hands that had been copied, for the purpose of reassembling as many as possible in Rome.20 Just how successful this was, we can only guess. There would be ample opportunity for fabrication and forgery. But manipulation of some sort had doubtless occurred from the beginning. Cicero revealingly alludes to the elasticity of the oracles by suggesting that they were composed in a manner to give the appearance of accurate forecast, while the obscurity of language allowed for adjustment to any circumstances.21 The Sibylline Books, as employed by the authorities, allowed Romans to reach out to alien wisdom and to reinforce their engagement with the cultures of Greece and the Near East. But the close management of the oracles by an authorized officialdom under the mandate of the senate limited control to a small circle and protected the interests of state. Augustus reinforced the constricted oversight. He ordered the burning of a host of dubious prophetic oracles, retaining only the Sibylline Books, and was selective even in that retention, setting the remainder apart for safekeeping.22 The pronouncements that had faded over time were to be copied anew, but only authorized priests were allowed to do so, lest anyone else might inspect them.23 Sibylline pronouncements did not circulate to the public.

The Extant Sibylline Books

As a consequence, we possess no texts that purport to convey the ipsissima verba of any of the attested Sibyls. The extant texts of the Sibylline Oracles bear no resemblance to what Sibyls may have uttered at Erythrae or Cumae, let alone to what was fashioned by state officials for Roman consumption. The surviving collection is a literary product, written largely in Homeric hexameters (as the originals were reputed to be) and composed by multiple Jewish, Christian, and perhaps a few pagan authors ranging from the 2nd century bce to the 7th century ce, with diverse aims and agendas. The Sibylline Books, as they have come down to us, consist of two principal collections, encompassing twelve volumes and assorted fragments. The numbered sequence has nothing to do with actual chronological order, and individual books themselves contain portions from different periods, nearly impossible to sort out or to allow reconstruction of a systematic order.24 The first collection contains books 1–8 in two manuscript groups, one of which includes a prologue. The second preserves books 9–14, but both 9 and 10 repeat material in the first collection and are generally omitted in standard editions, which nonetheless retain the numbering 11 through 14.25

The Third Sibyl

It is generally agreed that the earliest elements in the extant Sibylline Books occur in Book 3, the longest in the collection at 829 verses, and the one that has generated the most scholarly discussion and controversy. The work is predominantly Jewish in orientation, and contains multifarious material with oracular pronouncements discharged in no obvious order. On any reckoning, it is a composite, with some verses referring to events of the 2nd century bce, others to the late 1st century bce, and still others to the Julio-Claudian period. A summary of its contents can indicate the complex diversity of its subject matter, approaches, attitudes, and aims, thus defying efforts to find unified structure, date, or provenance. The Third Sibyl offers a rich canvass and the most illuminating entry into this fascinating genre.

The first segment, lines 1–96, can be set aside. Those lines either belong to the end of Book 2, as indicated by the manuscript tradition, or form a separate entity to introduce Book 3. Their exhortation to revere God, their exaltation of him, and their condemnation of idolatry do not readily fit with what follows in the text, as almost all scholars have recognized.26

The Third Sibylline Oracle proper begins at verse 97. The obviously Jewish author opens with his own brief rendition of the biblical tale of the tower of Babel (97–109). The text, however, immediately reverts to the Hellenic myth of the Titanomachy, dating back to Hesiod but now given a euhemeristic flavor, as the initial gods turn out to be human beings (110–155). The author then moves abruptly from mythology to history, as he lists eight successive empires that will rule in succession: the Egyptians, Persians, Medes, Ethiopians, Assyrians, Macedonians, Egyptians again, and Romans (156–161). The Sibyl now moves into prophecy, claiming divine inspiration, and gives a different sequence of successive kingdoms, beginning with that of Solomon, followed by various Near Eastern nations, then Macedonians and Romans, both depicted as harsh and evil rulers, the latter to face destruction in the reign of the seventh Greek (Ptolemaic) king of Egypt, and thus to give way to the people of God (162–195).

Another prophecy of divine judgement sets in at this point, overlapping with and partially revising the previous list of nations, forecasting disasters to befall Titans, Greeks, an assortment of other peoples, including victims of the Trojan war, and not exempting the Jews themselves (196–217). Jews are singled out as the race of the righteous, favoured by God, distinct from all other men, having been granted the laws of heaven by Moses, but also to suffer their own calamities, including the destruction of their temple at the hands of Assyrians because of their sins, until restored at God’s behest by the Persian king (218–294). The Sibyl obviously draws on the Bible, but overlays her pronouncements with the sequence of empires, echoing though not duplicating those found in Daniel, and with allusive historical references belonging to Hellenistic and Roman history.

The next segment moves in a different direction. The Sibyl declares a new prophecy, dictated by divinity, which forecasts horrors to be wrought upon a whole range of peoples, not only nations like Babylonia, Egypt, and Libya, but cities in Europe and Asia ranging from Mycenae to Gaza (295–349). The wave of destruction then moves to Rome, as the Sibyl predicts the vengeance of Asia to be inflicted upon the western power, returning threefold the misery that had been inflicted upon the East. But Rome will not suffer alone; the oracle throws into the mix scattered cities, Samos, Delos, and Smyrna, before heaven will bring order and peace once again (350–380).

The text then reverts to yet another scenario. It warns of the Macedonian conquest of Asia, including a reference to a wicked and powerful leader who seems to combine the features of Alexander the Great and Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the latter alluded to with a clear reference to the book of Daniel (381–400).

In an abrupt shift, myth once again replaces history. The Sibyl in duly oracular form refers to the tale of Troy and to its poet, who is branded as an unreliable source, one who embellished his tale with falsehoods and whose hexameters had been taken from the Sibyl herself (401–432). The twists and turns continue with no obvious structure or order. A host of disasters is foretold for a wide swath of Greek cities in Asia Minor. Then a still more foreboding oracle targets Rome and Italy: no foreign war this time, but horrendous civil strife. The Sibyl here seems to know her history, making indirect reference to Sulla and evidently aware of the deadly divisions in late Republican Rome, with their ramifications all over the Mediterranean (433–488). The horizon of disaster swiftly expands as the Sibyl turns to her next prophecy: further prognostications of doom to a host of cities and nations from Crete to Ethiopia, including the Gallic invasion of Greece—which, in fact, occurred long before the coming of Rome (474–519). The worst of these is the “barbarian” overwhelming of the Greeks and the imposition of slavery everywhere in the Hellenic world, which may be an allusion to Roman power. God will then take the devastation to yet another level, bringing pestilence and war that will eradicate two-thirds of humankind (520–544).

The Sibyl now adopts a contrasting mode. The Jewish persona predominates once more. She implores the Greeks to abandon their idolatry, give up their wicked ways, and recognize the authority of the great God. She proceeds to extol the Jews as the sacred nation, the true devotees of the divine who eschew idolatry and scorn the sin of homosexuality to which almost all other peoples succumb. The Sibyl prophesies still more war, epidemics, and natural disasters that God will rain upon the impious, sending a great king from Asia as his instrument, until he once more brings peace and prosperity (545–623). The alternating scenes of calamity and hope continue for the remainder of the text. The oracle exhorts gentiles to embrace the God of the Jews amidst the very destruction that that God imposes. Hope will be realized by a “king from the sun” who exercises force but puts an end to war. The cycle, nevertheless, repeats itself. The Sibyl foresees kings who will war upon one another but combine to assault the Temple in Jerusalem, thereby prompting a horrific eschaton in which God will crush the wicked and spread destruction everywhere (624–701). The Jews, however, will be spared, shielded from war and disaster, and rejoicing in their Temple. The Sibyl renews her exhortation to Greeks to give up their evil ways and recognize the greatness of God, who will put an end to conflict and institute a golden age of harmony and prosperity (702–766). The image of the lion and the lamb drawn from Isaiah is here expanded upon, with all creatures rendered harmless and protective even of children. The eschaton will be heralded by portents in the skies and celebrated by universal sacrifice to God (767–808).

In the concluding verses, the Sibyl declares her lineage and her mission. She is the prophetess of the great God, not the crazed oracle of Erythrae as wrongly perceived by Greeks, but one who dates back to the Flood itself, a daughter-in-law of Noah, of his very blood, and gifted with revealed wisdom which renders her pronouncements authoritative and true (809–829).

Even a bald summary of the contents makes it clear that the Third Sibyl is a composite work, not the product of a single author with a uniform structure written at a particular time. Scholars have debated whether there is a core element, a principal corpus that accounts for much of the text, with a minor number of accretions added in different periods. For many, that main body can be dated to the mid-2nd century bce, fixed by three references in the text to a “seventh Greek king of Egypt,” which ostensibly point to Ptolemy Philometor or Ptolemy Euergetes.27 Others, however, have suggested that the number seven has symbolic or figurative meaning rather than reference to an individual monarch, thus reducing its value for dating purposes.28 The Third Sibyl does indeed refer, however elliptically or indirectly, to certain identifiable historical events, such as the Macedonian conquest of the East, the Roman subjugation of Asia, the fall of Carthage and Corinth, and the Italian civil war.29 These have served as termini post quem for dating the text. In fact, however, they attest only to the chronological setting of those passages and not to the work as a whole. Few would place most or all of the composition within a single period.30 The Third Sibyl did not emerge full-blown at any specific point. The above summary makes clear the patchwork character of the document, which encompasses diverse, often overlapping themes, repetitions, scattered historical references without logical sequence, frequent eschatological motifs, and a shifting structure that defies any linear pattern.31

Place is as difficult as time. Egypt appears several times in the text, thus leading most scholars to reckon the Third Sibylline Oracle as a product of Egyptian Judaism.32 But those references constitute only a small part of the text and do not easily serve to characterize it as a whole. Parts may derive from Palestinian Jews, and even some from pagans.33 Determination of both date and provenance remains elusive. The complexity of the compilation resists reductionism.

Whatever weight one might wish to place upon the historical markers in the text, it is well to remember that the Sibyl is, above all, a prophetess of the end time, a purveyor of apocalyptic visions. References to historical events set them in a broader canvass of calamities to come, divine vengeance upon evildoers, reversals of fortune, extensive suffering before the elevation of the elect, an appeal for repentance and conversion, and a glorious eschaton.

The predominantly Jewish nature of the Third Sibyl is unmistakable. Familiarity with the Bible indicates it, as does the frequent laudation of the Jews as a people of righteousness (even when they fall away from it), and the emphasis upon the Temple. But the text also exhibits an acquaintance with Greek mythology, as in the legend of the Titanomachy, the tale of the Trojan War, and the Homeric Iliad. It also shows some surprising knowledge of major events in Hellenistic and Roman history. The combination plainly reflects the engagement of Jewish intellectuals with the Greek and Roman worlds, primarily in the diaspora but to some degree even in Palestine. The Third Sibyl draws upon both Jewish prophetic traditions and the oracular practises of the Hellenic world as well as their manifestations in Roman society. This intercultural blend is an essential characteristic of the work. Yet the Sibyl transcends the cultures. She identifies herself at the conclusion of the text as the daughter-in-law of Noah and of his very blood, eclipsing particular associations to which others have assigned her, revealing truths that come directly from God. She escapes place and time, preceding both the Jewish and the classical worlds, but heralding them both.34 She is thus accorded universal authority.

The First and Second Sibyls

Books 1 and 2 are conjoined in the manuscripts and appear to form a single unit. Dating is even more problematic, and provenance a matter of guesswork. A Jewish substratum certainly exists, but a significant Christian redaction complicates any efforts to set the books in place. The First Sibyl takes her readers through the major eras of humankind, drawing extensively upon Genesis for the creation story, Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, the sins of subsequent generations, Noah and the Flood, and the renewal of the race (1–323). But she sprinkles allusions to Greek mythology, such as the Titans, Hades, Tartarus, and Rhea, in with the biblical narrative (80–84, 100–103, 117–119, 307–314), thus displaying a mixture comparable to the Third Sibyl. A Christian author then intervenes, utilizing gospel accounts, with explicit references to the Passion and the Resurrection, forecasting the fall of the Temple at Roman hands as retaliation upon the Jews (124–400).

The Second Sibyl proceeds with a destructive oracle, this time forecasting God’s vengeance upon Rome, combined with salvation of the pious, and Christ’s award of immortality to the deserving (1–55). A sudden shift of gears follows as the Sibyl mouths axioms from Jewish wisdom literature on the practise of justice, mercy, moderation, and honesty, an intrusive insertion in the text (56–148). She then reverts to apocalyptic pronouncements, the sufferings of evildoers, and reversals of fortune between the Hebrews and their enemies (149–185). The text offers a vivid picture of the end of days and a sweeping divine judgement exercised by God thundering from on high, with Christ, trailing glory, at his side, followed by a terrifying river of fire to wipe out the wicked and reward the pious (186–338). The conclusion of the oracle is quite striking, as the Sibyl, unlike her counterparts in the other books or in her pagan incarnation, repents her own transgressions and fears for her own fate in the final conflagration (339–347). As is clear, the First and Second Sibylline Oracles constitute a complex and far from coherent mixture of biblical narrative, Hellenic echoes, Christian interpolation, and apocalyptic forecasts. The text resists attempts to find structure and uniformity—perhaps because the apocalyptic genre itself will not allow it.35

The Fourth Sibyl

The shorter Fourth Sibyl takes a more historical turn. She introduce herself quite firmly as distinct from the pagan oracle who proclaims the falsities of Phoebus Apollo, for she is the prophetess of the great God, not fashioned by the hands of men, a common Jewish image. She draws a sharp contrast between those who look to lifeless statues and meaningless temples and those who abjure idolatry and shun sin. The latter will gain their reward, while the former will perish in the Last Judgement (1–40). The Sibyl then recounts the sequence of imperial powers, each following the fall of the last: the Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Macedonians, and Romans. She takes the story down to the destruction of the Temple by Rome. In an epilogue of sorts, the text alludes to the eruption of Vesuvius as a form of divine wrath upon Italy, and even to the supposed flight of Nero into the lands of Parthia and his return to retaliate against Rome (41–139). The motif of Asia gaining manifold vengeance against Rome that appeared in the Third Sibylline Oracle is repeated here (145–148). The Sibyl concludes with an appeal for repentance by sinners, a depiction of a fiery final judgement, and salvation of the godly (152–192).

This text does provide some handles for chronology. References to the fall of Jerusalem and the rumors of Nero’s crossing the Euphrates must postdate 70 ce, and the eruption of Vesuvius takes the story beyond 79 ce (115–127, 130–139). It does not, however, follow, as is often concluded, that composition came shortly thereafter.36 Nor does that conclusion fix the dates of other parts of the oracle, such as the eschatology. The Sibyl’s self-identification, by contrast with pagan seers, suggests a Jewish author. Nothing in the text anywhere hints at Christian authorship. Indeed, even the Jewishness need not apply throughout. The treatment of the rise and fall of empires and the historical references could as easily come from gentiles. The Sibylline genre had wider appeal.37

The Fifth Sibyl

A comparable conglomerate can be found in the Fifth Sibyl. It begins with a historical sketch, more specifically a roster of rulers starting with Alexander the Great and proceeding in chronological sequence with a list of Roman leaders from Aeneas through Marcus Aurelius, none identified by name but all identifiable by tags delivered in oracular form (1–51). The Sibyl then reverts to her principal objective: forecasts of doom. For much of the rest of the text, she alternates between blasts at Egypt and rants against Rome.38 The hostility toward those nations is plain, signalled at the outset by setting the list of rulers as part of a wretched era of the Latins and, at the conclusion, by prophesying divine wrath against Egypt (1, 484–511). Those denunciations, however, by no means exhaust the Fifth Sibyl’s proclamations. She also forecasts disasters to befall various eastern peoples, including Persians, Iberians (of the Caucasus), Babylonians, and Massagetae, as well as numerous Greek cities and other communities of Anatolia (111–136, 286–327). Nor is Europe to be spared: God will rain down harsh punishments on idolators and evildoers of all races (333–360).

Still another level of complexity enters into this variegated text. The Sibyl takes a particular interest in the emperor Nero. That ruler moves in and out of the text at odd intervals rather than receiving a continuous treatment. And his role is far from uniform. Nero appears in certain verses as a champion of the eastern nations that had suffered the depredations of Rome, an ally or even embodiment of Parthia who remained the principal foe of the western power. Nero, in this image, would be the avenger, redoubling Asian retaliation against the Rome from which he had himself fled, and leaving destruction everywhere (93–105, 361–385). Rome may have had it coming, as far as the Sibyl is concerned. Yet Nero hardly emerges as an admirable hero. In other verses of the Fifth Sibyl, the emperor is branded by the author with the harsh portrait drawn from Roman writers hostile to Nero and embellished here. Nero appears as a disgraced ruler, a fugitive from Rome, a ruthless matricide, a megalomaniac, and, much to the chagrin of Romans, an obsessive artist, singer, actor, and lyre player (32–35, 141–142, 216, 363–364). To this negative portrait that coincides with the view of many in Rome, the Sibyl adds the features of brutality and ruthlessness that issued in widespread devastation throughout the Mediterranean world (28–29, 33, 101–105, 145, 214–227, 365–380). He receives blame even for the destruction of the Temple (150–151).39 A Jewish voice plainly speaks on that matter, and Jewish sentiments recur in the text. The Sibyl heaps praise on the Jews for piety and righteousness, laments the loss of the Temple, and exalts the land of Judaea (247–285, 328–332, 397–410).

Like the other Sibylline Oracles, the Fifth Sibyl has a patchwork character. Efforts to place it in any particular chronological or geographical setting run into difficulties. The initial roster of emperors ends with Marcus Aurelius, and its author obviously postdates that era. But the text moves directly to a ferocious denunciation of Egypt and a forecast of retribution against Alexandria. These seem somewhat out of place for an Egypt long stripped of power and a mere province of the Roman Empire.40 The recurrent appearances of Nero in the text, usually in unexpected places, must also stem from a period well before the composition of the ruler list. Nero was very old news by the late 2nd century ce. To pinpoint chronology in the Fifth Sibyl is a frustrating endeavour. It is generally acknowledged that the oracles in this text should be located in Egypt, on the grounds that Egypt is a prime target of many of the verses,41 but the numerous other targets give pause to any conclusion on that score. It is quite striking that the Sibyl opens her pronouncements by claiming that she will recount the lamentable time of the Latin race.42 Rome is the principal foe—as it was in the Third Sibyl—and the attitude to Egypt is more complex. Although the Sibyl rails repeatedly against Egyptians, she actually identifies herself as a friend of Isis (53). The link with Egypt’s most revered female divinity suggests a posture beyond that of mere antipathy to the land and its people. Even the experience of the Jews and their role as favourites of God do not dominate the text. Historical events may count for less than eschatology.43 The Sibyl projects a massive destruction ordained from on high, an end of days to encompass all, heralded by a saviour figure coming from heaven. Isis herself will be eclipsed, and all culminates in a titanic battle of the stars.44 The Sibyl cannot easily be pinned down to the circumstances of her day—whenever and wherever that might be.

The Remaining Sibylline Books

The remaining books pick up some themes already adumbrated, elaborating on either historical or on apocalyptic messages. The involvement of Christian authors, redactors, or interpolators becomes increasingly evident. The Eighth Sibyl, for example, includes the by now conventional record of successive world empires, Rome being the last, before giving way to the fiery destruction brought by God, a fitting desolation for the proud empire (1–49). The relentless fulminations against Rome, with the end time to swallow it up, are familiar (73–109, 126–130). Nero pops up again as the agent of destruction, more than once (68–72, 140–159), and the eschaton takes prominence (169–215). An overlay of Christian elements also enters into the text. Christ emerges as the implementer of the Last Judgement, a recipient of the author’s hymns of praise (217–336). The standard condemnations of idolatry and predictions of disaster follow (338–455). But the text concludes with the Christian insertion of the virgin birth and verses to honor God and Christ (456–500). The Sixth and Seventh Sibylline Books are essentially Christian in orientation. The first is a very brief hymn to Christ, not an oracle at all. The second does deliver oracular forebodings of doom to a range of cities and nations, including a defeat for Rome, with still another apocalypse to come (9–28, 40–63, 96–131). But the author introduces a novel element by bringing in Christ as the incarnation of divinity (29–39, 64–75). The Sibyl concludes with another echo of an earlier oracle: a confession of her own sins and a recognition that her fate too is sealed.45

Books Eleven through Fourteen stand somewhat apart in the collection. Their thrust is historical, with no eschatology, and very little that suggests Sibylline activity at all. Book Eleven begins with the Sibyl promising to deliver dire prognostications. Yet the bulk of the text is merely a brief sketch of major events, commencing with the Flood and then proceeding with its own idiosyncratic summary of successive world empires, which includes the “Indians,” putting the rule of the “Assyrians” after that of the Persians and Medes, and setting the nation of Romulus and Remus prior to the Trojan War. Most of the rest of the text records the deeds of Alexander, his successors, the Hellenistic history of Egypt, and its conquest by Rome. A few biblical allusions do occur (28–40, 80–103, 306–310). But there is little trace of Jewish teachings, and none of Christian. Indeed, at the conclusion of the text, the Sibyl asserts that she will go to Pytho (i.e., Pythian Apollo), an identification with the famed pagan oracle, thus to be reckoned as a trustworthy seer (315–317).

More of the same is found in Book Twelve. The Sibyl begins again with the claim of offering a lamentable record of the Latins, as she did at the beginning of Book Five. She proceeds then by tracing the line of Roman emperors, going from Augustus through Severus Alexander, passing brief judgement on each, largely in accord with standard Roman opinion (though the favourable view of Domitian is an exception). There are two brief allusions in passing to Jews as victims, a reference to the Jewish God, and the rejection of idolatry (99–100, 110–112, 132, 152, 291–292), and just two Christian interpolations (30–34, 232). The text as a whole, however, lacks theological character or mission. Almost all of it could have been composed by a pagan.

The Thirteenth Sibyl also concentrates on historical developments, providing a short resumé of the chaotic events in the mid-3rd century ce. In oracular convention, the Sibyl describes individual Roman emperors and their rivals in obscure, indirect, and allusive fashion, but enough whereby to identify figures from Gordian III to Odenathus. The fact of missing portions at the beginning allows the inference that the author sought to continue the story from where the Twelfth Sibyl left off. More than one hand can be detected in the text, as is the case with all the books. The work, despite its obscurities, does provide some useful information on a very dark period of Roman history.46 This Sibylline oracle too focusses upon the events of history rather than prognostications for the future. It does include the standard pronouncements of doom falling upon the wicked, but no apocalyptic visions enhance the text. Moreover, there is little point in speculating about Jewish or Christian authorship; the Sibyl does not advance the cause of either of those religions.47

The fourteenth and last of the Sibylline books is the most frustrating and the least illuminating. Ostensibly it takes the form of its three predecessors: a sequential review of Roman emperors, their successes and failures, and the disasters suffered in their reigns. But the descriptions and allusions are, in almost every instance, so opaque or distorted that inferences about which historical figures (if any) are being referenced can claim no conviction. Nor is it obvious that the author or authors speak about a continuous period rather than hearken back, when it suits them, to earlier periods and individuals. Disasters recur throughout, but almost all are the responsibility of mortals conducting endless wars rather than natural disasters or divine intervention. The text is filled with repetitions, and the result is a jumble. Jews receive a brief mention, lacking any meaningful context (340–342). They may also be the “holy nation” that appears as beneficiary of the eschaton at the conclusion (360–361), but there is barely a hint of a Jewish hand anywhere in the text. Nor is there even a serious attempt at systematic historical presentation. The nearest one comes to a chronological marker is an enigmatic remark about mortal blood come among the Arabs, which some have taken as denoting the Arab invasion of Egypt in the 7th century ce (347). That represents an optimistic effort to find any genuine history amidst a chaotic and incoherent text.48 The Fourteenth Sibyl almost reads like a parody of the previous three books.


An interesting irony emerges from a survey of the Sibylline Oracles. What began as a series of apocalyptic forecasts with only rare and tenuous connection to specified time and space concludes with three books committed to genuine or purported records of historical persons and events in chronological sequence. More interesting still, what began as Jewish appropriation of the Greek Sibyl, thus exemplifying the hybrid that was Hellenistic Judaism, concludes with late antique authors (whether Jewish, Christian, or pagan) commandeering the Sibyl to lend authority to historical or pseudo-historical narrative. The Sibylline Oracles have proved to be perpetually elastic and malleable.


Bacchi, Ashley L. “Uncovering Jewish Creativity: Gender and Intertextuality in Book III of the Sibylline Oracles.” Diss., Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, CA, 2015.Find this resource:

Buitenwerf, Rieuwerd. Book III of the Sibylline Oracles and its Social Setting. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003.Find this resource:

Collins, John J. The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism. Missoula, MT: Society of Biblical Literature for the Pseudepigrapha Group, 1974.Find this resource:

Collins, John J. “Sibylline Oracles.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. Edited by J. H. Charlesworth, vol. 1, 317–472. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983.Find this resource:

Collins, John J. Jewish Cult and Hellenistic Culture. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005.Find this resource:

DiTommaso, Lorenzo. “Sibylline Oracles.” In The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, 1226–1227. Edited by John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010.Find this resource:

Geffcken, Johannes. Die Oracula Sibyllina. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1902.Find this resource:

Geffcken, Johannes. Komposition und Enstehungszeit der Oracula Sibyllina. Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1902.Find this resource:

Goodman, Martin. “The Sibylline Oracles.” In The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ. Edited by E. Schürer et al., revised and edited by G. Vermes, F. Millar, and M. Goodman, vol. 3.1, 617–654. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986.Find this resource:

Gottschalk, H. B. Heraclides of Pontus. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980.Find this resource:

Gruen, Erich S. Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Gruen, Erich S. “Nero in the Sibylline Oracles.” Scripta Classica Israelica 33 (2014): 87–98.Find this resource:

Jones, Kenneth R. Jewish Reactions to the Destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70: Apocalypses and Related Pseudepigrapha. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 151. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011.Find this resource:

Kahn, Charles H. The Art and Thought of Heraclitus. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979.Find this resource:

Latte, Kurt. Römische Religionsgeschichte. Munich: Beck, 1960.Find this resource:

Lightfoot, J. L. The Sibylline Oracles: With Introduction, Translation, and Commentary on the First and Second Books. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.Find this resource:

Moore, Stewart A. Jewish Ethnic Identity and Relations in Hellenistic Egypt. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015.Find this resource:

Nikiprowetzky, Valentin. La Troisième Sibylle. Paris: Mouton, 1970.Find this resource:

Orlin, Eric M. Temples, Religion and Politics in the Roman Republic. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997.Find this resource:

Parke, H. W. Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity. London: Routledge, 1988.Find this resource:

Potter, D. S. Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.Find this resource:

Wehrli, Fritz. Herakleides Pontikos. Basel: Schwabe, 1953.Find this resource:


(1.) Heraclitus, in Plut. Mor. 397A-B: Σίβυλλα δὲ μαινομένῳ στόματι καθ’ Ἡράκλειτον ἀγέλαστα καὶ ἀκαλλώπιστα καὶ ἀμύριστα φθεγγομένη χιλίων ἐτῶν ἐξικνεῖται τῇ φωνῇ διὰ τὸν θεόν‎. To what degree this is direct quotation from Heraclitus is contested. See Charles H. Kahn, The Art and Thought of Heraclitus (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 124–126; H. W. Parke, Sibyls and Sibylline Prophecy in Classical Antiquity (London: Routledge, 1988), 63; and J. L. Lightfoot, The Sibylline Oracles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2007), 3–4.

(2.) Heraclides, in Clem. Alex. Strom.–3; Lactantius, Div. Inst. 1.6.12. On Heraclides and the Sibyls, see Fritz Wehrli, Herakleides Pontikos (Basel: Schwabe, 1953), 40–41; and H. B. Gottschalk, Heraclides of Pontus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980), 130.

(3.) Paus. 10.12.1–4.

(4.) Paus. 10.12.7.

(5.) Cf. Parke, Sibyls, 24–29.

(6.) Lactantius, Div. Inst. 1.6.8.

(7.) Lactantius, Div. Inst. 1.6.7: Sibyllinos libros, ait, non fuisse unius Sibyllae, sed appallari uno nomine Sibyllinos, quod omnes feminae vates Sibyllae sint a veteribus nuncupatae vel ab unius Delphidis nomine vel a consiliis deorum enuntiandis.

(8.) Lactantius, Div. Inst. 1.6.8–12. A slight variant, but plainly drawing on Varro’s list, appears in Tibullus, 2.5.

(9.) Lactantius, Div. Inst. 1.6.10–11. Cf. Dion. Hal. 4.62. Varro interestingly observes that some called the Cumaean Sibyl Herophile, the name that two other shrines claimed for their own Sibyls, according to Heraclides Ponticus. That is yet further illustration of the confusing medley of competing tales swirling about Sibylline shrines.

(10.) Paus. 10.12.9; Aelian, Var. Hist. 12.35. See the important treatment by Martin Goodman, “The Sibylline Oracles,“ in The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, eds. E. Schürer et al., revised and edited by G. Vermes, F. Millar, and M. Goodman (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986), vol. 3.1, 622–626, with useful bibliography.

(11.) The first Sybil in Varro’s list, in fact, was a Persian.

(12.) See the valuable discussion of Parke, Sibyls, 29–35.

(13.) Dion. Hal. 4.62.4; Livy, 3.10.7, 5.13.16, 6.37.12; and Servius on Verg. Aen. 6.73.

(14.) Dion. Hal. 4.62.5.

(15.) Dion. Hal. 6.17, 10.2; and Livy, 3.10.7, 4.25.3.

(16.) Livy, 10.47.6–7; Per. 11; Val. Max. 1.8.2; and Vir. Ill. 22.1.

(17.) Varro, in Censorinus, 17.8–10; cf. Val. Max. 2.4.5; Livy, Per. 49. See Kurt Latte, Römische Religionsgeschichte (Munich: Beck, 1960), 246–248.

(18.) Livy, 22.9.7–10.

(19.) See the valuable survey of Eric M. Orlin, Temples, Religion and Politics in the Roman Republic (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1997), 76–115, with extensive bibliography.

(20.) Dion. Hal. 4.62.6; Tac. Ann. 6.12; and Lactantius, Div. Inst. 1.6.14.

(21.) Cic. De Div. 2.54.110: Callide enim, qui illa composuit, perfecit, ut quodcumque accidisset, praedictum videretur hominum et temporum definitione sublata. Adhibuit etiam latebram oscuritatis, ut eidem versus alias in aliam rem posse accommodari viderentur.

(22.) Suet. Aug. 31.2.

(23.) Dio, 54.17.2.

(24.) The classic edition remains that of Johannes Geffcken, Oracula Sibyllina (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1902). Valuable introductions to the subject may be found in John J. Collins, The Sibylline Oracles of Egyptian Judaism (Missoula, MT: Society of Biblical Literature for the Pseudepigrapha Group, 1974), 1–19; John J. Collins, “Sibylline Oracles,” in Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, ed. J. H. Charlesworth (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), vol. 1, 317–324; Goodman, “Sibylline Oracles,” 628–632; D. S. Potter, Prophecy and History in the Crisis of the Roman Empire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 95–140; and Lightfoot, Sibylline Oracles, 3–23.

(25.) A full and detailed discussion of the manuscripts can be found in Geffcken, Oracula Sibyllina, xxi–liii. See further, on the text tradition, the careful reconstruction of Rieuwerd Buitenwerf, Book III of the Sibylline Oracles and Its Social Setting (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2003), 65–91.

(26.) See, e.g., Johannes Geffcken, Komposition und Enstehungszeit der Oracula Sibyllina (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1902), 47–53; Collins, “Sibylline Oracles,” 359–360; Goodman, “Sibylline Oracles,” 630–631; and Buitenwerf, Book III, 66–69.

(27.) Sib. Or. 3.193, 318, 608. See Collins, Sibylline Oracles, 28–33; Collins, Jewish Cult and Hellenistic Culture (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005), 87–96; Lorenzo DiTommaso, “Sibylline Oracles,” in The Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism, eds. John J. Collins and Daniel C. Harlow (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010), 1226–1227; and Stewart A. Moore, Jewish Ethnic Identity and Relations in Hellenistic Egypt (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2015), 193–196.

(28.) Erich S. Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism: The Reinvention of Jewish Tradition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 272–277; Buitenwerf, Book III, 128–129; and Lightfoot, Sibylline Oracles, 95.

(29.) Sib. Or. 3.350–355, 381–384, 464–470, 484–488. Some have also found allusion to the “Second Triumvirate” in lines 46–54, and to Cleopatra VII in lines 75–92, 359–361; Geffcken, Komposition, 13–14; Collins, Sibylline Oracles, 61–70; and Goodman, “Sibylline Oracles,” 641. But those conjectures are shaky and unverifiable; and see Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism, 278–281.

(30.) The principal exceptions are Valentin Nikiprowetzky, La Troisième Sibylle (Paris: Mouton, 1970), 195–225, who assigns the composition to the later 1st century bce, in the time of Cleopatra VII, and Buitenwerf, Book III, 126–130, who dates it between 80 and 40 bce.

(31.) Geffcken, Komposition, 1–17, dissected the text and assigned different segments to different Sibyls, a questionable undertaking but one that recognized the pluralistic character of the work. Numerous alternative divisions have been proposed by subsequent scholars; see bibliography in Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism, 269–270. More recently, Lightfoot, Sibylline Oracles, x, rightly regards the Third Sibylline Oracle as a medley of disparate material that does not hold together. Other recent scholars, while acknowledging the diffuse character, hold to the idea that a main corpus took shape in the mid-2nd century bce; Collins, Jewish Cult, 87–94; and Ashley L. Bacchi, “Uncovering Jewish Creativity: Gender and Intertextuality in Book III of the Sibylline Oracles” (diss., Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, 2015), 42–52. Moore, Jewish Ethnic Identity, 188–199, puts about half the book at that time, and most of the rest in the next generation.

(32.) Sib. Or. 3.156–161, 192–193, 314–318, 348–349, 596–600, 608–623. See Collins, Sibylline Oracles, 35–55; Collins, Jewish Cult, 96–97; and Moore, Jewish Ethnic Identity, 188–203. Buitenwerf, Book III, 130–133, sets the composition in Asia Minor.

(33.) Cf. Gruen, Heritage and Hellenism, 283–285; and Lightfoot, Sibylline Oracles, 96–97.

(34.) Sib. Or. 3.809–829: τοῦ μὲν ἐγὼ νύμφη καὶ ἀφ’ αἵματος αὐτοῦ ἐτύχθην, τῶ τὰ πρῶτ’ ἐγένοντο, τὰ δ’ ἔσχατα πάντ’ ἀπεδείχθη, ὥστ’ ἀπ’ ἐμοῦ στόματος ταδ’ ἀληθινὰ πάντα λελέχθω‎.

(35.) On First and Second Sibyllines, see now the magisterial discussion and commentary of Lightfoot, Sibylline Oracles, with extensive bibliography, and useful reflections on 148–152.

(36.) On the date of composition, see the discussion by Kenneth R. Jones, Jewish Reactions to the Destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2011), 178–181.

(37.) See the fine treatment of the Fourth Sibyl in Jones, Jewish Reactions, 218, 223–225, 228–229, 232–237, 242–243.

(38.) Egypt: 52–92, 179–199, 484–511; and Rome: 162–178, 386–413.

(39.) On the divided portrait of Nero in the Oracles, see Erich S. Gruen, “Nero in the Sibylline Oracles,” Scripta Classica Israelica 33 (2014): 87–98; see also Jones, Jewish Reactions, 209–243.

(40.) Collins, Sibylline Oracles, 76–78, sees the antipathy to Egypt as a reaction to growing anti-Semitism in that land, perhaps alluded to in Sib. Or. 5.68–69. But the pogrom in Alexandria took place more than a century and half before Marcus Aurelius, and even the uprising in the time of Trajan occurred seventy-five years earlier. The anti-Egyptian oracles could have a much longer history. They appear also in the Third Sibyl. Egypt was the quintessential example of the worst form of idolatry—animal worship; Sib. Or. 3.29–45, 314–318, 348–349, 596–600, 611–623.

(41.) Collins, Sibylline Oracles, 75; Collins, “Sibylline Oracles,” 390–391; Goodman, “Sibylline Oracles,” 645; and Jones, Jewish Reactions, 214–215.

(42.) Sib. Or. 5.1: ἀλλ’ ἄγε μοι στονόεντα χρόνον κλύε Λατινιδάων‎.

(43.) Sib. Or. 5.414–433, 447–486, 512–531.

(44.) By contrast, Jones, Jewish Reactions, 215–243, places more emphasis on the historical allusions.

(45.) Sib. Or. 7.150–162. Cf. Sib. Or. 2.339–347.

(46.) See the admirable commentary of Potter, Prophecy and History, 179–347.

(47.) The sole possible exception is a mention of the πιστοί‎ in line 87, which may be a reference to Christian faithful persecuted in the reign of Decius. Cf. Potter, Prophecy and History, 261.

(48.) Sib. Or. 14.347. On the Fourteenth Sibyl and its difficulties, see Collins, “Sibylline Oracles, 459–460, with references to earlier literature.

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